Oscar ’62 Revisited, Part One: The Best Pictures

The 1962 Oscars are best remembered for two things: a bitter, bizarre, and batty Best Actress tiff (more on that in a future post), and a tight Best Picture race between two cinematic giants which left the other contenders just along for the ride. That assessment is certainly understandable. Lawrence of Arabia pulled in ten nominations and won seven, including Picture and Director; To Kill a Mockingbird‘s eight nominations led to three wins, including Actor and Adapted Screenplay. Meanwhile, the other three films up for the big prize were oddities, each failing to earn nods in any of the other “top” categories (directing, acting, and writing), receiving instead mentions in just the music and technical categories1. That’s a rarity for one picture in any year, more so three at once2. These films – The Longest Day, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Music Man – are considered populist fare whose blockbuster status carried them to the top spot in place of more deserving efforts.

Lawrence of Arabia

But that’s not entirely fair. One could easily argue Lawrence and Mockingbird also raked in the nods thanks to their popularity – after all, all five nominees were among the top ten moneymakers in 1963, with Lawrence grabbing the top spot (collecting more than twice the box office of the runner-up, The Longest Day). Four of them were critical hits as well, with only Mutiny on the Bounty receiving mixed reviews. In other words, all five contenders earned their way to the top.

Much like Cleopatra the following year, Bounty was known in its day more for its troubled production than for what wound up on screen, yet interest in the behind-the-scenes shenanigans helped lure curious moviegoers into theaters. It might not have turned a profit thanks to its bloated budget, but it was certainly a hit.

And like Cleopatra, it’s difficult to separate its backstory from the final product when viewing. When Marlon Brando first walks into frame, dandied up as a snobbish Fletcher Christian, you can just imagine the sighs of a cast and crew frustrated with a star obsessed with himself and willfully ignorant of minor details like schedule and budget. But in a way, it helps: such a self-serious ego is perfect casting, especially in the film’s first half, when Christian is more concerned with himself than with the seamen under his charge. We need to dislike Christian here so we can root for him more fully later, impressed by his change of heart; by the time the character warms up to his crew, so do we to Brando.

Indeed, for all its excess, Bounty is filled with exceptional performances, including Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh and Richard Harris as Mills. Director Lewis Milestone (who replaced Carol Reed mid-filming, after Reed was reportedly fed up with Brando’s antics) finds time amid the epic sweep to focus on smaller, personal details, quiet moments between the men as they feel the pressure building, and it’s here the film shines best.

But the film is also at least a half hour too long, the filmmakers so eager to show every penny of expense (including a costly full-size replica of the original Bounty), they lose track of the pacing of the story itself. Unlike Lawrence, which intertwines the epic and the intimate with great ease, Bounty is clumsier at such a balancing act. The rhythm of the film is jerky, with long stretches (especially the Tahitian bits) rambling nowhere in particular.

All of this makes Bounty the most questionable of the five nominees, but it’s quite unlikely any ballot shenanigans were afoot. (According to Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar3, Hollywood gossip columnists suggested vote swapping by the major studios, a charge Longest Day producer and new Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck laughed off, saying, “I don’t know who in the hell we could swap with. We only have twenty people working here who belong to the Academy.”) It seems instead a case of a mammoth film simply being on people’s minds at the time; seeing a large-scale production overcome its troubles and turn into a respectable box office hit is often enough to leave Academy members thinking it worthy of a Best Picture nod. (They might’ve also been wanting to throw MGM a bone, as Inside Oscar quotes Daily Variety in describing Bounty‘s nominations as a “morale builder” for the struggling studio.)

Equally long and equally embroiled in its own making-of drama but presenting problems from neither is The Longest Day, Darryl F. Zanuck’s monument to D-Day. The three-hour war classic was a major gamble, a $10,000,000 black-and-white multi-language widescreen epic with three directors (four if you count an uncredited Zanuck himself) working to squeeze a cast of “42 international stars!” into a painfully detailed recreation of D-Day, including scenes filmed on location at Normandy. At a time when Cleopatra’s production was bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox, The Longest Day’s success was a godsend. It was the second biggest box office hit of the year and the most successful black-and-white film ever made (a record that would hold until Schindler’s List). Fox rewarded Zanuck by placing him in charge of the studio.

If Bounty’s Best Picture nod was a morale builder for MGM, then The Longest Day’s nomination can be read as a validation of the boost the picture already gave to Fox. It can also be read as hat tip to the sheer effort that went into bringing Zanuck’s film to life. Remember, the Academy is an industry guild, and they may very well have looked upon The Longest Day either in awe, wondering just how the damn fool pulled off such sequences as the aerial shots of the main invasion, or in appreciation of a film that hired hundreds of actors and hundreds more craftsmen and women.

All of that sounds like its Best Picture nomination was an unearned gimme, but the truth is, it really is one of the best films of the year. Yes, it’s an astounding technical achievement, and I can’t even begin to fathom how Zanuck managed to coordinate the whole thing. But it’s also an artistic marvel and a ripping example of interweaving grand scale filmmaking with quiet, personal storytelling.

The key lies in the choice of source material; rather than present a straight history of D-Day and its major players, Zanuck chose to adapt the book from Cornelius Ryan, which collects a variety of anecdotes about the invasion, thus humanizing the history. Some are whimsical, some are deathly dark, all are honest about the personal side of war. It’s these little moments that make the film. One of the film’s best scenes delivers the full spectrum: a lost paratrooper (Richard Beymer) stumbles upon an injured pilot (Richard Burton), and, both exhausted, they begin to marvel at the German soldier lying dead nearby, boots on the wrong feet. It’s a mix of gallows humor, weariness, sobriety, horror, and relief, all painted as honest human reaction to an ungodly ordeal. The Longest Day may be spectacle, but it’s of a deeply personal brand.

Offering no behind-the-scenes melodrama, no struggles from budget overruns or self-absorbed stars, is The Music Man, a feather-light entertainment that seems wildly out of place in this batch of Best Picture nominees. While one could argue that Meredith Willson was dealing in sly social commentary and mocking a purely American fear of “corruption,” this musical comedy is rather quite proudly shallow. Its knocks on Midwestern values of the 1910s are good-natured and gentle, born not of snark but of nostalgia. The whole movie has the artificial polish of a backlot-bound studio picture in bold Technicolor.

All of that helps The Music Man stick out among the big films of 1962. Its fellow Best Picture nominees and other top Oscar contenders of the year are a glum bunch, contemplative and sober, with serious actors tackling high drama with arthouse sensibilities. Not so for Professor Harold Hill, whose tale is a soufflé among the sour. While Warner Brothers made more money with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, it’s easy to see why a frivolity such as The Music Man was chosen for the Best Picture push: it’s brilliant counterprogramming.

It helps, of course, that The Music Man is a great film. Shallow and polished it may be, but it’s also elegant in its construction and endearing in its presentation. Warner Brothers took a great risk in allowing Morton DaCosta, who directed the stage version, to direct and produce the film. DaCosta had only directed one previous film (Auntie Mame) and was a creature of Broadway, not Hollywood, but that gave him an advantage, using the artificiality of theater to paint with broad cinematic strokes, often using the wide screen like he would a wide stage. There’s some marvelous work with framing and lighting that showcase DaCosta’s visual sensibilities in ways that feel inspired by, but not beholden to, the theater. In fact, the only questionable moments are the ones offered by editing, allowing for visual gags unavailable in the play; when he cuts to the train’s wheels in “Rock Island” and the chickens in “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” he’s betraying the joke of Willson’s playful music.

The rest is explosive and joyous, most due to Robert Preston. Many vets from the stage production were carried over to the film, but Preston is the most valuable, something Willson must’ve known, as he flat-out refused to allow the film to be made without him, despite intriguing offers involving Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. Preston is a firecracker who whips the viewer into a frenzy as easily as his character does to the townsfolk, all while remaining charming enough to keep the audience on his side through every scheme. Would Sinatra have charmed us so effortlessly? Perhaps, but it’s tough to imagine anyone topping Preston’s Pied Piper performance. Among the worst crimes committed this Oscar year was the Academy snubbing Preston for Best Actor. His work here is worthy to be listed alongside Peck and O’Toole.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Peck and O’Toole. Two iconic performances amid two legendary films that are wildly different, which is what made this Best Picture race fascinating: it’s the grandeur and sweep of Lawrence versus the intimacy and humility of Mockingbird. The vastness of the desert captured in Metrocolor and 70mm widescreen versus the sleepiness of small town Alabama captured in somber black and white and a tighter 1.85:1 format. Bombast versus restraint.

(Enough has been written on both films, so I’m going to assume you don’t need me to describe the artistic achievements that make Lawrence so grand, nor the gentle direction and heartfelt performances that make Mockingbird equally unforgettable.)

The tonal contrasts are essential to the lead characters, O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence and Peck’s Atticus Finch. Lawrence, an opportunistic self-made savior, finds his calling in the desert, a chance to be a larger-than-life champion. Atticus, a humble, gentle soul who never raises his voice, puts right before might, allowing his restrained deeds and determination for justice to set an example for those around him. Each film, in mood and in presentation, mirrors these men’s attitudes.

Atticus and Lawrence share one vital trait: a disconnect from their worlds. Lawrence’s is more pronounced; he finds himself uncomfortable with British society and sets out looking for a place to belong – and in the desert, he finds himself but not a home. Atticus, meanwhile, is a man above the Southern attitudes that surround him and his family, but rather than seek to escape, he seeks to improve himself and those around him.

These men use this disconnect to fight for the oppressed, but here is where they diverge once more. Lawrence is an intentional loner, eventually abandoning the few he allows close; Atticus is surrounded by family and always welcomes more, even an outsider like Boo Radley. Indeed, Mockingbird is above all a family film, its legendary courtroom sequence ultimately a mere portion of a larger story where Scout, not her father, is at the core. When we watch Mockingbird, we watch a girl discover her father, and we watch a father, knowing he’s being studied, strive to be the best role model he can be. Both journeys are wondrous.

If Atticus is someone we all wish we could be, however, then Lawrence is someone we truly are: troubled, complicated, selfish despite our best intents, living a life absent of easy truths, awash in the grey middle ground of reality. Lawrence‘s opening sequence sets up the idea of a man so complicated, he becomes impossible to describe without contradiction. And in the end, doesn’t that describe all of us?

Both Lawrence and Mockingbird survive fifty years later as genuine classics of cinema, ageless tales worth revisiting time and again. I suppose even the most ardent Mockingbird fan would be hard pressed to complain about Lawrence ultimately winning Best Picture4 and Best Director – it’s the sort of movie one watches in awe, amazed at both the story and the filmmaking artistry on display – but I also suppose even the most ardent Lawrence fan would be hard pressed to complain about Mockingbird‘s status as a deserving runner-up.

1Several technical categories offered two awards at the time, one for black-and-white productions and one for color, allowing room for all five Best Picture nominees to beef up their total nomination count. This “split” ceased five years later, and it’s interesting to wonder if tighter competition in these categories would’ve lowered the nomination count for these films.

2Indeed, following the 1963 awards, it’s only happened to six other films: Doctor Dolittle, Hello, Dolly!, Jaws, Beauty and the Beast, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and War Horse.

3A major source for this article and arguably the finest book ever written on Oscar history.

4If you’re one of those folks who finds the nominations for Best Editing to be a vital prognosticator of a Best Picture win, you might’ve been able to pick the winner fifty years ago. Of the five Best Picture nominees, four were also nominated for Best Editing; only Mockingbird was shut out, replaced here by The Manchurian Candidate.

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